Back

Dark Days

Forward

 

On arrival at the naval barracks known as HMS Sultan, Stan and I were billeted in adjoining beds, I can honestly state that we must have slept the sleep of the dead. As totally unbeknown to us we had an air raid that same evening, I didn't find out about it until the following morning. We felt it was hilarious that such had been the depth of our sleep, even exploding bombs couldn't waken our slumber, however not long after rousing into life we had quite a shock.

Whilst sitting on our bunks enjoying a smoke, I happened to look at Stan's cupboard, which was situated by the side of his bed. Right through the centre of it was a jagged hole of about three to four inches in diameter. I pointed this out to him he went to the cabinet kneeling down to examine the damage. On feeling round the back of it he exclaimed, "bloody hell Yorky look at this". To my utter disbelief he produced a razor sharp piece of shrapnel that had embedded itself in a spare mattress at the rear of his cupboard. This really shocked the pair of us; it must have passed a matter of inches away from Stan's head whilst he was sleeping.

Once aware of the full facts behind this near-disaster we formed a pact to the effect of if we were parted during our time in the Far East, the first to get a draft back home would immediately visit the other's parents. I kept my word and on my return, I called to see his wife and family. They were eternally grateful for this visit, particularly when I informed them that up until the time I left his company, he was still in fine health. The reason why this point brought so much pleasure was that although they knew he'd survived the loss of Repulse, they hadn't received any additional information stating whether he'd been maimed or injured during the battle.

Later on during the first day we had to bid farewell to our old skipper; he was returning home to attend an inquiry board which would investigate the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse. It was a very emotional moment and some lads had tears in their eyes as he addressed us for the final time. I feel that it must have been an equally distressing speech for Captain Tennant to deliver because he'd watched over the welfare of our crew since the early days of the war, now we were parting under the most harrowing of circumstances. Although in keeping with the status and sincerity of the man he gave a great finale and we cheered our hearts out as he culminated his talk by stating he hoped "we'd all return home during the coming months". Sadly this didn't happen. Many of the men standing before him that day would never see their families again.

A couple of hours after Captain Tennant's departure we were addressed by a familiar face from happier times. The man in question was Admiral Spooner. As you'll be aware he was my first skipper when I joined Repulse. He also gave a fine speech in which he became truly emotional whilst speaking of the loss of our ship; adding that it had been the finest warship he'd ever skippered and she'd be deeply missed by all who knew her. To be fair the speech given by Tennant would have been impossible to emulate. Nevertheless, he did his best; offering condolences to the survivors in memory of the many men lost off both ships. However, his speech gradually took on a harder edge, when stating "we couldn't become lax in our duties or mental approach to the hard fight that lay ahead". He continued his address, leaving no doubt in our minds that because of the present situation we wouldn't be allowed any rest and recuperation. Rather, every last one of us was to be issued with fresh orders immediately.

Whilst he continued on a similar vein, Air Raid sirens began to sound, in amongst all this clatter I distinctly remember hearing the deep drone of approaching aircraft. We naturally expected to be dismissed and sent to the shelters, but unbelievably Spooner kept talking. By this time the whole parade ground was full of trembling matelots; you have to remember we'd just came through a horrific battle and many lads were still suffering some form of delayed shock. I still recollect our comments "is he bloody deaf" "what the hell's he waiting for" and others that were unprintable. Whilst these comments persisted the aircraft appeared, it was obvious they were Japanese and within seconds they began bombing the barracks. Finally Spooner relented and dismissed us, I remember running absolutely flat out into the bunker. Once inside we were packed like sardines. I have to add that this was the one and only time I've witnessed hundreds of men kneeling down with their knees knocking through pure fear. I hope you don't think that I was an exception. Mine were clasped tightly between my hands, but they still rattled away until the "all clear" sounded.

On re-appearing from the shelter, the entire area was a mass of thick black smoke. The reason for this was that the Japs had successfully struck at their main objective, this being the oil tanks that surrounded the barracks. I still remember one of the young Chinese lads who waited on in the Mess, he'd been in the Galley when the attack commenced and therefore had no alternative but to stay put. The only trouble was that this area had taken a direct hit. Thankfully he'd come through the terrifying ordeal with no injuries, except for the fact that he lost control of his bowels, through pure fear. The evidence of this was apparent as it was all down the backs of his legs. You may think that we laughed at this sight; well we didn't. It was so sad to watch this small boy shaking with fear whilst at the same time crying his eyes out. To this present day I still feel for the poor little bugger.

This attack was the last time I remember the barracks being bombed as the Japs directed almost all their later sorties against the many oil and fuel depots that were in abundance in and around Singapore City. Admiral Spooner was true to his word and a short while later we were posted to various duties. I was sent to guard one of the 15inch gun emplacements situated around the island. The purpose of these giants was to defend the colony from sea-borne attacks and as such they couldn't traverse inland. I feel certain that if they'd been able to direct their fire towards mainland Malaya this may well have caused severe problems to the future plans of the marauding Japanese. Subsequently they were never once fired in anger. I only spent one day guarding these guns as the following morning I was sent up to Seletar air force base. In some ways its a misconception to refer to this outpost with such a grand title as there were only a handful of obsolete planes on station. If they'd encountered any Jap fighters, the outcome would have been a formality.

After a day or so it was clear that nothing much appeared to be happening, so the officer in charge informed our small group that the following morning we were being detailed off to the naval base at Keppel harbour. I was pleased about these fresh orders, because many matelots had been given ships out of Singapore once their presence was known in that area. The reason being that although there were literally scores of vessels capable of leaving the island, few could do so because they'd insufficient numbers of experienced sailors to man them. I was determined that if the offer came my way I wouldn't hesitate, along with thousands of others trapped here, I truly wanted to leave as quickly as possible. It was clear that the whole colony was literally falling apart at its seams.

We stayed in the docks for several days and during this time I had many varied duties, the first of which was to unload Merchant ships that had brought arms and munitions to re-supply the allies in the fearsome battles taking place on mainland Malaya. Whilst performing these duties I had a short respite. Along with two other lads from Repulse I was sent out in a small rowing boat, we were given orders to make our way to the general location where a Merchant ship carrying aviation fuel had been sunk by Jap planes a few days previously. Once at the site we were to scour the surrounding areas and salvage as many cans of fuel as possible. There were literally thousands of these strewn over a vast area. Some were on the beach, others in the shallows and many were still around the site of the wreck. We each had a grappling hook on a length of rope, as the day progressed we amassed quite a substantial amount. In fact the rowing boat was close to being full when we heard the now familiar sound of approaching aircraft.

By this time in the fighting for the island every plane you heard would always be Japanese as our airforce was virtually non-existent. True to form a matter of moments later a large flight of bombers appeared. We felt safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't bother with three lads in a rowing boat and just sat back watching them fly across the skyline. Suddenly a solitary bomber took exception to our tranquillity and dropped like a stone heading directly for us. The first thing I saw were small bursts of flames spewing out of the wings, closely followed by the noise of machine gun fire. Before we had time to dive into the water, there was a massive explosion that threw us in the air. I don't remember anything else for a few seconds, until being quickly brought to my senses as I began to swallow seawater. It was soon apparent that we'd been blown out of the boat; for some inexplicable reason the Jap pilot had seen fit to waste one of his bombs on a tiny rowing boat. On gathering ourselves, all eyes began to look for the boat; but it was nowhere to be seen. I still can't understand how we escaped this attack, as the bomb must have detonated close-by, because the boat had been destroyed. How we never suffered a similar fate I will never comprehend.

Once fully recovered, we swam the 400yards or so back to the beach, then flaked out through sheer exhaustion; after a short rest we made our way back to barracks. On arrival we reported to an officer, he was quite sympathetic and once we told him of our escapade he excused us from any further duties for the remainder of the day. This most recent foray into the ocean had left us looking as if we were refugees at the end of a hazardous journey. Therefore, he told us to get a shower and change of clothes before venturing into the canteen, after freshening up we each sank a huge mug of tea and spoke of our lucky escape for quite some time afterwards.

 

There now followed a period of time spent in Singapore that I have a hard job to properly recollect, mainly because every day we performed the same duties. This was to unload ships that were fetching food and supplies into port. It was so distressing to watch the many troops arriving on these same vessels. Most would see very little action, the final reality being that many would never venture from the confines of Singapore City. Subsequently, when the colony finally surrendered, they would spend the remainder of the war as prisoners of the Japanese.

The next strong memory I have is being ordered to pack my kit; I was one of a group of thirty ratings that were picked to leave on a Merchant ship. This was gratifying news and I naturally assumed that we were on our way home, or at the very least we'd be on our way to join another warship that must have been in the locality. We made our way to the docks, to pick up our transport, however the sight that befell our eyes was unbelievable.

The ship that was taking us from this place had to be the biggest rust-bucket I had ever laid eyes on, I've no idea how it kept afloat let alone sailed. She was only a tiny vessel in the region of between 800-1000 tons, as we walked up the gangplank the whole area stank to absolute high heaven. The cause of this pungent aroma was soon apparent; the entire upper deck was full of livestock. They had pigs, sheep, ducks, goats along with all other manner of farmyard animals onboard. We learnt in a very short time it was far healthier to keep your kit bags closed until you needed fresh clothing, at least by doing this it stopped your clean kit being infested with fleas. It was without doubt the most unhygienic place I've ever seen in my life. I still don't know how we never succumbed to the many different diseases that were clearly being carried by the civilians onboard.

Once under way our C/O informed us we were sailing to Batavia (now known as Jakarta). From there we'd travel overland by train to Surabaya. The purpose of this mission was to report to the Dutch Marine Barracks where we we'd take charge of a small flotilla of Motor torpedo Boats, (MTB's). He went on to say that once this operation was completed we'd return to Singapore where these small vessels would be used in defence of our beleaguered colony. I was really worried by the prospect of returning to the island as it was now mid January and the whole world was fully aware that Singapore would inevitably fall. The final words he spoke stated that as we had no specific duties to perform, as long as we posted regular lookouts, our time was basically our own.

The threat of being attacked was quite worrying as this old tub was packed to the gills with people, and there couldn't have been more than two or three lifeboats throughout the whole ship. In addition, these tiny boats were in worse condition than the steamer itself. Thankfully it was to be an uneventful journey. For the majority of our time at sea we kept to ourselves and played the favourite card game in the navy "cribbage". One day we were witnesses to quite a horrific act. It was early morning when a small group of us went up top to take in the fresh air. The weather was beautiful and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, I was captivated by all the porpoise and swordfish that were in abundance around the ship.

After about fifteen minutes a young Malaysian lad came up top and walked past our group, he ended up inspecting a calf that was tied to the guard-rail. After a few moments he came over whilst pointing towards the calf and said, "him your dinner". We burst out laughing, although all this accomplished was to make him somewhat agitated, as he retorted in a stronger tone "you no laugh, me tell you him your dinner, you come here eleven o'clock and I show you". With that he disappeared back below deck. Paying little attention to his words and with the heat of the rising sun becoming oppressive, we went down below to play cards and have a cup of tea. Time moved on to 10.45 when one of our lads chirped up " I wonder if that kids back up top". Most weren't bothered in finding out, but three of us were quite curious as to whether he'd make an appearance, so up we went.

True to his word, bang on time he materialised, as he walked past I could see a long thin bladed knife in his hand. Without pausing to draw breath he walked over to the calf and said "me kill you now" then his hand flashed across its neck with lightening speed. In an instant the calf was stone dead. He paid little heed to this point and immediately began to lever one of its forelegs up and down to empty the animals blood through the gaping slash in its neck and into the boats scuppers. As soon as this task was completed, he promptly cut the calf's head off and threw it overboard. We were absolutely speechless. This kid was only in his early teens and killing was a way of life to him, he certainly wiped the smirks off of our faces. Within half an hour it was skinned, gutted and ready for the pot.

He then called for the assistance of two crew-members they appeared with a board helping him to carry our future dinner down below. At exactly 1300hrs we sat down and tried our best to eat the remains of the small creature that only a matter of hours previously had looked out forlornly on our group as we smoked on the upper deck.

The following day we reached our destination of Batavia, after docking we made our way to the station catching the night train to Surabaya. Thankfully it was a sleeper and I don't remember any of the journey because I slept for the entire duration. At first light we arrived at Surabaya railhead, Dutch army personnel were awaiting the arrival of our group escorting us directly to the Marines Barracks. On arrival we almost had celebratory status, the entire garrison wanted to meet our party. I spent quite a while answering literally scores of questions as to what was happening in and around Singapore. Once this was over the lads took us down to the showers where we cleaned up and managed to muster some fresh kit. Then we sat down to our first proper meal in days and it tasted fantastic.

The elation of arriving amongst all these friendly faces was short-lived; within a couple of hours our C/O addressed us stating that there'd been a massive clerical cock-up. It appeared that the Dutch C/O in the camp wasn't aware of our intended acquisition of his MTB's and he wouldn't under any circumstances allow us to take them. He was adamant that they needed the boats for their own use and as far as he was concerned the matter was closed. We had to wait till the following morning to see if the situation could be remedied, but it wasn't to be. Our C/O got in touch with Singapore, and they readily admitted that it was a mistake on their part, adding that the officers in charge of the colony demanded our immediate return. The Marines were sorry to see us leave and wished everyone a safe journey. Little did anyone realise that during the coming months of war, soon after the demise of Singapore, this colony would also fall under the swords of the Japanese.

The return trip was a very solemn affair. I honestly felt that I'd never survive the coming conflict. The news on the radio couldn't hide the fact that Japanese forces had all but taken every key point in Malaya, absolutely nothing the allies had been able to muster was having the effect of slowing down their relentless progress towards the ultimate goal of Singapore. We had the added worry of a sea journey on another old Merchant ship through seas that the Japanese navy now had under their full control. The trip took about three days and thankfully we had a safe crossing.

On docking I could see the full extent of the chaos. The entire area around the dockyard was more reminiscent of a bombsite. Since our departure a few days earlier the Jap airforce had mounted a relentless bombing campaign. It was a different island from the one I sailed to on Repulse a matter of weeks earlier; the entire area was unrecognisable. As for our group if the previously upsetting news over our return to this doomed island was felt to be as bad as our luck could run to, then we were in for a far greater shock. On entering barracks the C/O informed all hands to get some food down them as quickly as possible. After that we'd have to report to the parade ground. Our next destination was direct confrontation with the Japanese army in mainland Malaya.

 

 

Back

Forward